Close Contact

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Last week I spent both of my posts on the positive impact that community can have on us — how choosing to spend time with others can provide an environment in which change can happen. When we feel loved and accepted, we can let down our guards, open our minds, and be open to new ways of thinking and being.

However, spending time in close proximity to others does come with risk. The moments we spend with others — our family, our community — are not often picture perfect; frequently they are characterized by friction, collision, and pain.

In fact, when I look back on the mental movie of my life, I can see the people I love most standing nearby as I have yelled, thrown things, and slammed doors; they’ve born witness as I’ve lain wounded, cried, and struggled to get back up. What impact must these moments have had on the bystanders? I am sure they left marks on the people I love most. And when I sit with that truth, my body aches.

But, here’s the thing: we can’t avoid leaving marks on the people we love the most.

We. are. broken.

All of us.

And when broken people come close to one another, we hurt one another.

Hurt people hurt people.

And all of us — from time to time — are hurting.

I remember one particularly difficult morning during the soldiering years when our whole family was headed to join a gathering of friends for a meal. Everyone else was ready and waiting, but I was upset about something — probably a larger internal issue — and I couldn’t get comfortable with the way I looked. I closed the bathroom door, tore everything out of the cabinets, and began violently cleaning and rearranging as I cried. I was hurting so badly, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how I could pull on a face that would not expose my pain for public viewing. My husband and my children — all in middle and high school by this time — could certainly hear me wailing and slamming as they watched the clock, knowing we were going to be late. When finally I emerged, tears wiped, make-up applied, and silent, they watched cautiously as I climbed in the car. We all rode quietly to the event, where I took a deep breath, got out of the car, and engaged appropriately (or at least more appropriately) with those who had gathered.

What impact did that make? How did I affect my children and my husband, all of whom were also hurting during this period, by processing in this way — behind closed doors — and then presenting a different face to those who were one step removed? What was I teaching them about pain? About emotion? About friendship? About community?

Of course many experience bigger hurts than my emotional melt down. When families and communities experience accidents, trauma, or disaster, all feel the blows and carry the resulting injuries. If one member of the family is injured in a car accident, everyone’s life gets bumped out of its rhythm — all those who care stop what they are doing, show up on the scene, rally to help, and adjust their schedules until further notice. When one person is the victim of a crime, all in the vicinity feel the violation — they experience fear, anger, grief, agony — sometimes for years after the fact. When someone in the family loses their house to fire or their livelihood is destroyed by hurricane, the impact can be felt by the children, the parents, and the whole community who might see the course of their lives redirected for decades in the wake of such devastation.

Not every hurt is remarkable, of course, some impacts go virtually unnoticed. Others are among the everyday bumps and bruises incurred with close contact.

The other morning, my husband of almost thirty years was driving me to work on one of the coldest mornings of the year. We were chatting matter-of-factly as he drove when something he said struck a cord and I felt defensive. I heard myself respond directly, and soon I knew my reply was sharper than I’d intended when I heard his tone change, too. Before we knew it, we were both feeling agitated and exchanging charged comments. We arrived at the office building where I work, said our goodbyes, and both tried to proceed into our days carrying the bumps and bruises from that conversation.

Now, because we’ve been married for almost thirty years and because we’ve done the heavy lifting that has taught us how to repair, he texted me within moments and I texted back. We both acknowledged our part in the conflict and agreed to table our discussion until later. We’d both felt the pain of contact, but we were willing to back up, reassess, and try a different approach that wouldn’t cause damage.

When you are willing, you can experience growth and change in your relationships with others. Over time, having experienced many collisions and close calls, you can learn how to navigate more safely, how to give each other a wide berth, how to forgive missteps and even outright hurtfulness.

In fact, if you are going to stay in relationships with people, you are going to have to learn how to consider one another, how to forgive one another, and how to give one another chance after chance after chance, because when we live in close proximity, we bump into each other, and sometimes it hurts.

It can be painful to think about the impact that our choices, patterns, and words have had on those closest to us. We want so badly to get it all right, but we never will. So, we trudge on, doing what we can.

We don’t have to — we don’t have to keep trying, keep trudging. We have options.

We could avoid this hurt altogether. We could choose to live as individuals — insulating ourselves from others so that we don’t hurt them and so that they don’t hurt us — but what would we lose in so doing?

We would lose the opportunity to love, to learn, to grow. We would lose the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. We would lose the chance to laugh together, to share experiences, and to weep with one another.

This morning at church, right before I witnessed my friend and her husband give bread and wine to her aging father, right before I saw them, along with our pastor, envelop him in a hug and pray for him, I heard these words:

…what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?

Where is there some “self” which has not been communally created? By cutting

back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows.”

Stanley Hauerwas

In my closest relationships I have experienced the deepest pain, and I have felt the fullest joy. Knowing I will continue to experience both the pain and the joy, I will not cut back my attachments; I will not shrink into myself. I will open my arms and embrace the brokenness that is inherent to all relationships, because our truest selves are indeed made from the materials of our communal life.

“Be kind to one another — tenderhearted, forgiving one another — even as God, for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:32

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